Long ago, in a reality that now seems very far away, I lived in Plainfield, Vermont, where, amid a host of part-time jobs I referred to as “the trapeze act,” I occasionally worked for a local organic farmer, and spent some time hanging out with a friendly guy who lived in the renovated part of the farmer’s barn. Dude had just written a book about a movement that he, as well as I, was active in–the bioregional movement, and its then-newborn child, the Green Party of the United States. The German Greens were kind of rock stars at the time. Petra Kelley, Rudolf Bahro and their cohorts were changing the face of their country’s politics, creating another dimension of discourse, yanking Germany out of the rut of right-left ideological headbutting and, like Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, speaking for the trees.
Back then, it was “morning in America,” and the Democrats’ feeble answers to the Reagan/Bush I counter-revolution–corporate liberal milquetoasts like Mondale and Dukakis–were sure losers even before being shot down in the high noon of the ’84 and ’88 elections. Could we shake up America’s moribund politics in the same way the German, and other European, Green Parties were breathing fresh air into the legislative halls of Europe? It just might be possible, we thought.
So…the dude who lived in the barn–his name, by the way, was Brian Tokar–gave me a copy of his book, entitled “The Green Alternative: Creating an Ecological Future.” I read it at the time, and it helped enthuse me to stay connected with the bioregional movement and, ultimately, connect with the Green Party after I moved back to Tennessee. Brian’s little book has been travelling around with me now for nearly twenty years, and when it resurfaced a few months ago, I decided to reread it, as a message from my life twenty years ago to my life today.
In some ways, as I said, it seems like a very long time since the late 1980’s, but “The Green Alternative” shows that some of us, at least, have stayed on message. The chapter headings start with “What Does It Mean to Be Green?,” “We Are All Part of Nature” and “Where Did We Go Wrong?”– two questions and an affirmation that all remain vitally relevant.
Brian’s answer to the question of “What does it mean to be ‘Green’?” clearly rejects what has since become known as “greenwashing”; he tells us:
The Greens in West Germany have come to be known by their four pillars: ecology, social responsibility, democracy and nonviolence. Greens in the United States have generally expanded this list to include an explicit emphasis on decentralization–the need to reorient both politics and economics toward the local community level. There is often a strong link to the feminist vision of a society that guarantees equal rights to all and embodies the need for personal as well as political transformation. Many Greens also emphasize the search for a new ethical and spiritual orientation, one that reaffirms the place of human cultures within the natural world and seeks to heal the cultural rift between people and the earth that our civilization has imposed…..
Another important factor that distinguishes Greens from other political tendencies is the search for an alternative to the economics of growth. Most political leaders in the world today…accept the belief that continued industrial expansion is necessary if we are to feed the hungry and raise people’s standard of living. For Greens, this is a dangerous myth.
Greens see that unchecked industrial expansion has brought the world to the brink of ecological collapse……
Long before peak oil, long before most of us realized that carbon emissions from our two-century fossil fuel binge are about to simultaneously bring the sky down on our heads and yank the floor from beneath our feet, we Greens smelled a rat in the industrial miracle. In 1987, Brian is already noting that “a marked increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide” threatens the earth’s ability to sustain life.
Brian answers the “Where did we go wrong?” question with a concise but well-crafted 26-page history of civilization, showing how one little thing after another took us further and further from our original union with the natural world, until “Nature” had become an “other” to be feared, conquered and exploited.
And so the next section is titled “Healing the Wounds,” and again we are treated to a recap of history–a few decades this time, starting with the stifling, Commie-hating, grey flannel 1950s and the reaction they spawned, from Rosa Parks to Allen Ginsberg to rock n’roll, and then the quantum leaps through Martin Luther King, Black Power, the hippies, the antiwar and anti nuclear movements, the womens’ movement, organic farming, ecological living, the Bioregional movement…it was as if a Pandora’s box full of good spirits opened to counteract the insanity that had become enshrined in Western Civilization. And, if none of these hydra heads has yet vanquished the demon that is eating the world, neither have they succumbed to it.
This hydra-headedness, this diversity, is the strength of the Green movement, as Brian goes on to point out in the balance of the book, which is based on the German Greens’ four pillars of ecology, social responsibiility, democracy and nonviolence. While some pieces of the puzzle have changed since 1987, most notably the end of so-called Communism and the cold war, with the consequent de-escalation of nuclear danger, the Green program is largely the same now as it was then–localize, decentralize, democratize, socialize–this last word in both its meanings–as in community ownership of infrastructure, and in the importance of people relating to each other face to face.
It’s been twenty years since Brian wrote his visionary book. Petra Kelley and Rudolf Bahro are both dead, but the German Green Party holds a respectable number of parliamentary seats and has participated in coalition governments, and the union of European Green Parties is a significant voice in the EU’s parliament.
Here in the US, while the Green movement as a social phenomenon continues its neck-and-neck race with the corporate vampire state,but Green electoral success has been less than stellar. A few local races here and there, some responsibility for sending Bernie Sanders up the ladder, and that’s about it. The US’s winner-take-all system doesn’t allow room for more than two at the table, and the two parties who enjoy the benefits of this system are unlikely to spoil their good thing. The looming future seems to demand creative, innovative solutions, solutions that recognize that the power structure in America cannot solve our problems because our power structure is a big part of the problem. Even without the flood of corporate political influence the Supreme Court has just unleashed, the odds for a sane, Green solution in this country were not good. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. What other option is there for a person of conscience?
music: Eliza Gilkyson, “Emerald Street“